In the still, warm Mediterranean sea, two schooners wander together, calling at the same ports in what once was the cradle of Western civilization. Aboard these ships are 80 high school boys and girls ages 9 through 18, along with 20 staff members who compose the Flint School. Their floating classrooms enable them to study and complete a full academic year while exploring the Parthenon, the island of Elba, or the ruins of Carthage near Tunis.
The Flint School was founded in 1968 in Sarasota, Fla., and in 1970 moved aboard an ex-Stanford University research ship, Te Vega, a 156-foot steel-hulled , two-masted, gaffriged topsail schooner. In 1976 Te Vega was awarded third prize at the Tall Ships bicentennial celebration in New York Harbor.
Founder-director George began with 4th, 5th, and 6th graders. In 1972 the school acquired another ship, Te Quest, a 173-foot, steel-hulled, three-masted staysail schooner, and the academic program was expanded to include junior and senior high school.
The school offers a nine-month of 12-month program with extra programs for those who need academic warm-ups. Tuition ranges from $6,000 to $8,000. Students pay their own transportation to the ships, which are usually in European waters.
Last year, these floating students traveled throughout Western Europe, including London, Rome, Copenhagen, Madrid, Paris.
Students with disciplinary problems are not accepted. Some students are accepted who have minor academic difficulties. Classes are arranged according to levels of learning rather than age.
Life aboard ship is admittedly harsh. Students wash their own clothes and go on night watches as part of the crew.
Students are allowed only $35 spending money for the entire program. They are expected to earn extra money by washing dishes or painting and scraping. Jim Stoll explains: "We are anti-giving and pro-earning. Most of the kids in their first year go broke by November."
Students earn privileges and certain freedoms through rankings -- from apprentice seaman to captain -- granted by votes from their peers.
Neil Wilson celebrated his 12th birthday aboard. He now attends private school in Bailey, N.C. Before signing him up, his mother, a school guidance counselor, had long talks with other Flint parents.
"The academics were out first concern," Mrs. Wilson says. She laughingly recalled that Neil had left home without any family pictures, "But by Easter he asked us to send him pictures of his family because he claimed he didn't remember what we looked like."
Linda Lindhom, now studying humanities at Stevens College in Columbia, Mo., graduated from Flint last year. She now appreciates a "warm bath" (there are only cold showers on board) a "real hot meal."
The school follows a nonrefund policy if a student drops out. "Last year, we had a few dropouts" says Jim Stoll.
Paula Smith, 17, of Brooks, Ga., didn't return after Christmas. She liked a lot of things about the school, got along well, had fun, worked hard. But she missed her friends.She was "lonely" and "had no privacy -- that was the hardest thing," she says. Paula spent last summer with one of her friends from Flint.
Some staff members are not accredited teachers but are specialists in their fields. All serve as crew members.
Judy Thommesen, a teacher who now works in the Sarasota office explains, "It is a 26-hours-a-day job." She says teachers are "living examples; students see not the authoritarian aspect, but someone they can rely on."
Teachers act as counselors, sharing their cabins with two to eight students. Mrs. Thommesen says most students have to "adjust themselves to a new life, a small area, and no TV to switch on."
Surprisingly, the Flint School gives only a "second importance" to foreign languages, although it has teachers who speak French, German, Spanish, and Dutch. Fifteen percent of the students come from foreign countries and conversations in their mother tongues, Mr. Stoll indicates, seem to stimulate other students to study languages.